While the cruise industry has grown consistently since 2008 and is expected to reach about 24 million passengers by 2016 , concerns remain regarding the viability of current operating models in an environment with extreme weather changes, volatile energy costs, and increasing government regulations. To adapt to changing climate conditions, cruise ship operators like Royal Caribbean are committing to reducing their environmental footprint by modifying ship energy sources, changing route destinations, and even partnering with environmental organizations to aid in preservation efforts. Simultaneously, operators have taken an opportunist approach to climate change impacts to ensure they remain a demanded, profitable business going forward. It remains to be seen whether these industry-wide adaptations can sustain cruise tourism, or whether operators like Royal Caribbean will end up sinking in the mess they helped create.
As the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions on a per-tourist-trip , the cruise industry is at high risk of more stringent regulations that will require companies like Royal Caribbean to reduce its hazardous gas emissions. The World Tourism Organization and United Nations Environment Programme have estimated that a long-haul, luxury cruise can generate up to 9 t CO2 per trip, compared to about 0.5 t CO2 generated by other modes of international travel . While the volume of these long-haul cruises is small compared to trips done by plane, train, or car, the environmental effects caused by the large diesel engines powering these ships are great, and can be largely mitigated. To help prevent these hazardous emissions, Royal Caribbean has implemented new technologies to filter and reduce the emissions that are released in the atmosphere and has brought innovation to cruise ship energy sources. In an effort to meet the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, Royal Caribbean modified the way it uses scrubbers in smokestacks to remove sulfur dioxide  “to provide greater emission reductions…at a much lower cost” . In addition to its efforts to better filter gas emissions, Royal Caribbean committed significant investment in its Radiance-class ships, which are powered by gas and steam turbines and are expected to “reduce exhaust emissions by 80-90%” . These technological innovations will help chip away at the growing levels of hazardous gas emissions, though it’s unclear whether these changes will be implemented across the company’s entire fleet, posing a substantial financial burden on Royal Caribbean.
In addition to the use of energy, the cruise industry is highly susceptible to weather and climate changes as temperature fluctuations and extreme weather conditions impact route destinations and consumer demand. On one hand, as our planet temperature continues to rise, new cruise destinations will become available in previously uncharted, glacial regions. Most recently, the ice in the Northwest Passage of the Arctic region melted enough to allow for the Crystal Serenity cruise to take passengers on a tour from Alaska to New York City . As this region continues to melt, cruise ship operators like Royal Caribbean are well-positioned to take advantage of the opportunity to explore one of the least explored regions of the world. On the other hand, extreme weather conditions are likely to impact the industry’s primary region, the Caribbean, which represents close to 40% of all cruise ship deployments . Destinations in this area are at a greater-risk resulting from climate change effects related to rising sea levels, changing weather patterns, and extreme weather . While hotter temperatures, heavy rainfall, and beach erosion may expose cruise operators to some vulnerabilities related to diminishing consumer demand, hurricanes pose the greatest threat to the industry in its potential to destroy destinations and disrupt travel patterns. Cruise ship companies must become better adept at planning and forecasting weather patterns to avoid route changes related to hurricanes. Earlier this year, Royal Caribbean had to cancel a ship’s tour and delayed departures for another three ships to respond to Hurricane Matthew’s threat to the Caribbean seas . Constant route changes and trip cancellations can substantially impact a large portion of Royal Caribbean’s business, requiring them to better predict extreme weather events in the future.
As climate change continues to impose risks to the cruise industry, it is incumbent upon ship operators to take a proactive approach to mitigating these threats going forward. Royal Caribbean has taken impressive strides in partnering with research programs to collect data on ocean and atmosphere patterns through the Ocean Fund . By providing data to university researchers, Royal Caribbean is actively funding and supporting programs to better monitor and study climate change effects. However, research programs alone won’t move the needle for the cruise tourism industry. Royal Caribbean should invest in energy suppliers to find new technologies that will drastically reduce hazardous waste emissions. Without innovations in ship transportation for consumer travel, Royal Caribbean operations will be at mercy of nature’s forces.
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